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The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland

By John M. Pafford

Regnery

240 pages, $27.95

By Gene Warner

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Sorry for being so provincial and lurid, but the most interesting nuggets in the latest literary slant on Grover Cleveland date back to his still-murky bedroom escapades prior to his serving as Buffalo mayor.

This is an unusual book, a breezy read – only 161 pages before the book’s appendix – that tries to cast Cleveland in a new light, as a conservative, highly religious man.

Forget about the conservatism and the religion for a minute. Author John M. Pafford’s quick writing style shines brightest as he refers to Cleveland’s affair (although neither was married) with young Buffalo widow Maria Halpin.

In 1874, she gave birth to a son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland, named after both Cleveland and Folsom, his married law partner. Shortly after Cleveland was nominated for president 10 years later, the anti-Cleveland Buffalo Telegraph printed lurid accusations from the pastor of the Hudson Street Baptist Church, claiming that Cleveland was a debauched womanizer who had seduced Halpin, promised to marry her and then abandoned her when she was pregnant, the author writes.

One New York City newspaper editor framed the issue in the most colorful terms: “We do not believe that the American people will knowingly elect to the Presidency a coarse debaucher who would bring his harlots with him to Washington and hire lodgings for them convenient to the White House.”

Cleveland, according to Pafford, showed his true stripes in reacting to this scandal. A man of the highest integrity and principles, he neither admitted nor denied being the father. He urged his supporters to tell the truth, and he refused to pin the child’s fatherhood on the likely culprit, his old law partner who had since died.

“When supporters attributed his silence to a desire to protect the reputation of his dead friend and partner Oscar Folsom, he angrily rejected the easy tactic of laying the responsibility on a dead man,” the author writes.

That’s the Grover Cleveland who emerges here, a man of true principle, rather than a politician.

We’ll leave it to more dedicated historians to determine how much of this is groundbreaking material on Cleveland, although the author devotes only one chapter to each of Cleveland’s two terms. What’s new is the emphasis on him being the “forgotten conservative.”

Wait a minute. Who ever thought Cleveland was anything but a conservative? He presided over a far different Democratic Party in the late 19th century, a splintered party dominated by pro-business leaders and Southern Democrats who still favored slavery. The party was considered even more conservative than its Republican counterpart.

So the portrait that Pafford carves out here is the traditional Cleveland image, that of a man who favored the gold standard, low tariffs, limited taxes and spending and minimal government interference, a leader who vetoed twice as many bills as his 21 predecessors combined. He also stood out as a man of integrity, conviction and strong religious beliefs.

How is that not an image of a revered conservative?

What comes across here is what a great man Cleveland was. The more interesting angle than the “forgotten conservative” would have been Pafford’s suggestion that perhaps Cleveland could have been one of our greatest presidents, if the times had demanded it and if he’d possessed more personal charisma.

Cleveland does stake out a unique claim in presidential history.

Any student who’s ever recited the list of U.S. presidents knows that Cleveland’s the only one to serve two nonconsecutive terms. What most students may not know is that Cleveland won the popular vote three times in a row; only Franklin D. Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson have done that.

Time and again, Cleveland rose above petty politics, traveling the high road.

And he’s one of ours.

As Pafford notes, in quoting Cleveland historian H. Paul Jeffers, Buffalo “offered little in the way of surface graces but brimmed with people of common sense, tenacity and stubborn character. These traits harmonized with Grover Cleveland’s spirit of independence, conscientiousness, efficiency, and, above all, honesty.”

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter and student of the American presidency.